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Why Fred Thompson ran, well, O.K., walked

January 24, 2008 |  6:08 am

Now that he's dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination, we get an inside inkling of why Fred Thompson really became a presidential candidate. And it wasn't really that he wanted to be president.

Some would say that, in the end, he ran his campaign that way.

According to a new entry in the campaign blog of Carl Cameron, chief political correspondent of Fox News, last spring at a conservative convention in Washington, Thompson aides and friends back in Tennessee began whispering to reporters and others that the former senator was pondering a White House bid. Those anonymous tips quickly made their way into media reports, including Cameron's.

What didn't get reported, according to Cameron, was that....

some of those same aides also told him then strictly off the record that the murmurs were really a trial balloon to gauge the then-actor's political popularity and insert Thompson's name in the inevitable vice presidential sweepstakes later this year.

In March, the aides said, Thompson did not intend to run for president. But with the perceived dearth of true conservative candidates among party faithful, the prospect of the tall, weathered actor hero as a candidate caught on among many and what began as a trial balloon quickly took on a life of its own as enthusiasm for the unplanned candidacy mounted out of control, according to Cameron.

Thompson was caught completely off-guard, totally unprepared to plan, fund and organize a complex, massive effort like a national presidential campaign. This helps explain the staff disorganization and frequent delays of anticipated announcements throughout the summer.

It also gives validity to the early questions over the fire in his belly to reach the White House. He'd almost been pushed or fallen into the campaign instead of carefully plotting it for years as others have. During his "campaign" Thompson's efforts often appeared half-hearted, putting in half-days of campaigning and giving uninspired, partially prepared speeches.

Wearing Gucci loafers, Thompson rode around Midwestern summer fairs in a golf cart, instead of glad-handing the crowds. He dissed New Hampshire by shunning a Republican debate there to announce his candidacy on his home TV network's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

After finishing third in Iowa, Thompson barely appeared in New Hampshire, except for a Fox News debate. As a result, Granite State voters placed him last behind even Rep. Ron Paul. He finished fifth in Nevada and Michigan and second in Wyoming to Mitt Romney.

Despite some good lines during Republican debates, Thompson's finances began fading and the one-time rumored successor to Ronald Reagan, the consistent conservative who'd played strong leaders on the screen, finished third again in South Carolina behind his longtime Senate friend John McCain.

Thompson gave a concession speech that sounded more like a farewell. He dropped all plans to campaign in the next state, Florida, went to visit his ailing mother in Tennessee and, as we reported here, "ambled" off the campaign stage.

Now, as Cameron reports, Thompson can sit back and see if the eventual GOP nominee does call him to become No. 2. A key indicator will be if Thompson endorses McCain. That would likely take him out of the VP sweepstakes. If he doesn't endorse anyone, well, then this time we'll know what's really going on.

--Andrew Malcolm